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  • A Gaelic road sign pointing to Ard Mhidhinis or Ardveenish
    Bilingual road sign
  • A Gaelic and English sign for a grocer, arts and crafts shop in Tobermory, Isle of Mull
    A Gaelic and English shop sign in Tobermory, Isle of Mull
  • A Gaelic and English street sign in Stornoway, Isle of Lewis
    A Gaelic and English street sign in Stornoway, Isle of Lewis
  • Gaelic text painted on the side of a craft shop in Isle Ornsay, Skye
    Gaelic text painted on the side of a craft shop in Isle Ornsay, Skye

Scotland today is mostly an English-speaking country, but it was not always so. The land has three indigenous languages: English, Gaelic and Scots. Read on to find out more about the Scots Language and different ways in which Scots have spoken throughout the ages.

Across Scotland, Gaelic was once the dominant language and you can still hear it spoken today, particularly in the Highlands and the Outer Hebrides. As a result of intensive efforts to keep the language alive in speech and writing you will, for instance, find place names in both English and Gaelic on many signposts.

Yet, in the Lowlands and in Scottish cities, there are also strong connections to the Scots Language, another native language which has survived centuries of upheaval.

What is Scots?

A sister language to English, Scots has a number of distinct varieties, from the Ayrshire dialect spoken by Robert Burns to that spoken in Aberdeen City and Shire, a version of Scots known as Doric. 

In Orkney and Shetland, too, you’ll hear a distinctive variety of Scots that has a strong Scandinavian influence. These northern islands were once part of the Viking world, and much of the language used here has its origins in Old Norse and Norn, an extinct language. Lots of these words are still recognisable today, to the surprise and delight of visitors from Scandinavia.

With its close connections to English, you may be able to understand several phrases and words. There are many ways you can find out more about the language and our Scots-speaking ancestors, with resources including the Scottish Language Dictionaries, a detailed research project into the language, and Scots-Online

What is it used for, and who uses it?

Scots is commonly used in everyday speech, in literature and in song. In the 2011 census, 1.5 million people reported that they use the Scots language.

Historically, Scots was the language of the Scottish court and monarchs. Famous writers who have used Scots include Robert Burns, Hugh MacDiarmid and William Soutar.

Once you’ve spent some time in Scotland you’ll begin to pick out differences in dialect. Subtle nuances of language that reflect regional identities and strengthen that all-important sense of place. Remember that dialect words are long-lasting and the words you hear today are probably those your ancestors would have used.

For further information about Scots, visit the Education Scotland website.